Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 40/Hon. Judah P. Benjamin (Christian)
HON. JUDAH P. BENJAMIN.
Speech of Judge George L. Christian, Receiving a Portrait of Mr Benjamin for Lee Camp, U. C. V., Richmond, Va.
When I was first asked by the honorable chairman of your portrait committee to perform the duty of receiving this portrait for the Camp, I unhesitatingly declined. In doing this I believe you know, it was from no lack of disposition on m part, to serve this Camp, or the generous donors of this gift. But my declination was based solely upon two grounds, (I) I have no time for preparation for this occasion, and (2), I have so often appeared before the Camp on similar occasions, that I feel satisfied the Camp must be tired of hearing my voice from this rostrum. I frankly gave to your chairman these excellent reasons for declining, and they seemed satisfactory to him at the time. A few weeks later, he came again, conveying the somewhat gratifying information, that the donors of the gift insisted that I should take part in these proceedings, and saying, indeed, that they would not consent that any other person should fill the place assigned by them to me.
I again hesitated, as your chairman knows; but when I reflected, that the men and women who make this contribution to this gallery, are not only among my truest and best friends, but are also among the most useful and enterprising citizens of this city, and that some of them were among the most gallant and loyal supporters of the Confederate cause, I could not hesitate longer to consent to contribute my humble mite to aid them in their noble and patriotic endeavor. I reflected, too, that mine was a subordinate part in this performance, and knowing, as I did, that the gifted and eloquent gentleman, to whom was assigned the "laboring oar," would say all that need be said about the illustrious subject of this portrait, I gave my consent to act the minor part in these interesting exercises.
As I have said, on a former occasion, to me, the most interesting and impressive services that take place in this historic city from year to year, and from time to time, are those performed by the patriotic women of the Hollywood, Oakwood, and Hebrew Memorial Associations, in making their annual pilgrimages, to deck with the flowers of each recurring spring the graves of the immortal and heroic Confederate dead, and the meeting of these remnants of the Confederate armies gathering here from time to time, to adorn these graves, with the representative soldiers and statesmen of the "storm cradled" but meteoric, and ever glorious Confederacy.
"Ah realm of tombs, but let her live
Thus blossom to the end of time,
No nation rose so white and fair,
None fell so pure of crime."
No better evidence of the justice of the Confederate cause can be found, in my opinion, thru the fact of the unanimity of its supporters, in the South, from '61 to '65, and the fact that these supporters were confined to no class, creed or condition of our people. But Jews and Gentile, great and small, high and low, within the limits of the seceded States were enlisted almost as one man on the side of the defense of their homes and firesides, which was the embodiment of the real principle underlying the Confederate cause, and the further fact that although that cause went down in defeat more than a third of a century ago, its memories and its principles are still engraven on our hearts.
Among the Jews, easily the most distinguished and conspicuous, as he was one of the most remarkable men, not only of his race but of every other, was Judah Phillips Benjamin, of Louisiana. Of all reputations attained by men of intellect and learning, that of the great lawyer is the most ephemeral. Many of us, when the name of the greatest man of his age is mentioned, only remember, that Lord Francis Bacon was driven from the Woolsack for accepting bribes from the writers, and are ignorant, or forget the great ability exhibited by him in the prosecution of the Earl of Essex, for treason, or the splendid opinions delivered by him as the Lord Chancellor of England. One great reason why the reputation of the great lawyer, practically dies with him, arises from the fact, that comparatively few are witnesses of his great exploits, in the arguments and conduct of his cases; and fewer still, are interested in the results of these displays.
The career of Mr. Benjamin is, however, unique in the fact, that although, not a citizen of one, and scarcely a citizen of the other, he easily attained the highest rank at the Bar of the two greatest English speaking nations of the earth, and he attained these by reason of his even worth and work and talents, and without any of these fortuitous helps by which men often climb to eminence. He did it, too, without resorting to those expedients of such doubtful propriety of "blowing his own horn" in the press, by which so many reputations are made and as frequently marred, in these days. Mr. Benjamin not only never resorted to these methods, but he had a habit of destroying his letters, and other memoranda, which might conduce to the enlargement of his great reputation. When Mr. Benjamin first came to the Bar, he at once familiarized himself with the decisions of his adopted State, Louisiana, by making a complete and most useful digest of those decisions. He very soon attained the highest rank at that Bar, and was so successful, that he soon retired therefrom, with wealth, and became a planter. In this calling too he met with great success, as far as his efforts and talents could condense to success. But all his accumulations on the farm were destroyed by one of the disastrous floods, to which that country was then subject, and he was thus forced to again return to the Bar. In 1847 he was sent to California as a Commissioner of the Federal Government, with a retainer of $25,000, to straighten out some of the tangled land titles in that State. In 1852 he was elected to the U. S. Senate from Louisiana, and was re-elected in 1857. Mr. Charles Stunner said of him, that he was the most accomplished and consummate orator in the country. It was said by a leading English paper that his speech in defence of Louisiana's right to secede "sent an electric thrill throughout the civilized world." Sir George Cornwall Lewis said to Lord Sherbrooke. "Have you read Benjamin's speech? It is better than our Benjamin (meaning Disraeli) could have done." He could hardly have paid Benjamin a higher compliment. One or too extracts from this speech will convince the most skeptical of the great powers of its author, and that Sumner was right in his estimate of him.
It was claimed by the Republicans, that whatever right to withdraw from the Union the thirteen original States might have, that those States included in the Louisiana Purchase, could claim and exercise no such right, since those States were purchased with the money and were consequently the property of the Federal Government. In this contention, Mr. Benjamin replied in part, as follows. He said: "I shall not pause to comment on this repulsive dogma of a party which asserts the right of property in free born white men, in order to reach its cherished object of destroying the right of property in slave born black men — still less shall I detain the Senate, in pointing out how shadowy the distinction between the condition of the servile African and that to which the white freemen of my State would be reduced, if it indeed be true that they are bound to this government by ties that cannot be legitimately dissolved without the consent of that very majority which wields its powers for their oppression. I simply deny the fact on which the argument is founded. I deny that the province of Louisiana, or the people of Louisiana, were ever conveyed to the United States for a price, as property that could be bought or sold." And he then, went on to prove hs assertion by the terms of the grant, and then said, "The rights of Louisiana, as a sovereign State, are those of Virginia, no more and no less. Let those who deny her right to resume delegated powers, successfully refute the claim of Virginia to the same right, in spite of her express reservation made and notified to her sister States when she consented to enter the Union; and, sir, permit me to say, that, of all the causes that justify the action of the Southern States, I know none of greater gravity and more alarming magnitude, than that now developed, of the right of secession. A pretension so monstrous as that which perverts a restricted agency constituted by sovereign States, for common purposes, into the unlimited despotism of the majority, and denies all legitimate escape from such despotism, when powers not delegated are usurped, converts the whole constitutional fabric into the secure abode of lawless tyranny, and degrades sovereign States into provincial dependencies." After showing, in a conclusive way, that the right of secession did exist, and that that right was first threatened by Massachusetts, and the other New England States, in answer to the contention that such a right would make the Constitution "a rope of sand," he said:
"But, sir, if the fact were otherwise, if all the teachings of experience were reversed better, far better, a rope of sand, aye, the flimsiest gossimer that ever glistened in the morning dew, than chains of iron and shackles of steel; better the wildest anarchy, with the hope, the chance, of an hour's inspiration of glorious breath of freedom, than ages of hopeless bondage and oppression, to which our enemies would reduce us."
In answer to the cry of "rebellion," so flippantly raised by the Republicans, he said: "Rebellion! the very word is a confession, an avowal of tyranny, outrage and oppression. It is taken from the despot's code, and has no terror for others than slavish souls. When, sir, did millions of people, as a single man, rise in organized, deliberate, unimpassioned rebellion, against justice, truth and honor?"
In answer to the cry of traitors and treason, so freely indulged in by the Republicans, he said:
"Traitors! Treason! Ay, sir, the people of the South imitate and glory in just such treason as glowed in the soul of Hampden; just such treason as leaped in living flame from the impassioned lips of Henry; just such treason as encircles with a sacred halo the undying name of Washington."
You have been told of his great services to the Confederacy, being a member of its Cabinet from its birth to its untimely end. Dr. Cary says of him: "During the, &c.," p. 139. Cooper DeLeon says of him, p. 34: "The Attorney General, &c.," p. 34.
The intended slur, contained in the concluding lines of the reference from DeLeon, are not justified by anything that I can find in the history of this most remarkable man, and eminent lawyer and statesman. On the contrary, the honors he achieved, both as a lawyer and statesman in this country, and especially the position attained at the English Bar, I think, fully attest the contrary. On his enforced retirement, on account of failing health, from the English Bar, the celebrities of that Bench and Bar gave him a complimentary dinner at which the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor, and the Lord Chief Justice, vied with each other in showering compliments upon him, not only as to his accomplishments and ability as a lawyer, but also as to his integrity and worth as a man. The Lord Chief Justice, in the course of his speech, said:
"He came among us as a foreigner, in mature life, with great known celebrity, yet he has told us how he was received, and he knows that from no member of the profession, high or low, was there ever one spark of jealousy at the unrivalled success which he so speedily attained both on Circuit and in Westminster Hall. He knows that we are all proud of him. He knows that with a unanimity, remarkable even in this generous profession, Bench and Bar have met to-night with enthusiastic cordiality to do him honor. I am told by a learned friend of mine, older than myself, and who knows everything, that forty years ago some similar honor was intended for, though, as it happened, it could not be actually received by Story. Forty years have elapsed, and we pay such an honor to one more distinguished than Story."
"Approbation from Sir Hubert is praise indeed."
When Mr. Benjamin went to England, he had lost practically all he had in the wreck of the Confederacy. The civil law being in force in Louisiana, he had to become a law student again, to become acquainted with the common law, and thus fit himself for admission to the English Bar. This he bravely set to work to do, maintaining himself in the meantime by one contribution a week to one of the great London papers, for each of which he received $25. His powers of labor and of acquisition were simply immense, and in an incredibly short time, and by a special dispensation, he was granted admission to the Bar. His success was immediate. He began his career in England, as he had done when first coming to the Bar in Louisiana, by writing a law-book, and "Benjamin on Sales of Personal Property," first published in 1868, has run through numerous editions, both in England and in this country, is now the standard work on this subject, and is regarded as a classic in the law, almost immediately on its appearance. A distinguished English Judge directed the Bailiff of his court to see that a copy was kept always by his side.
Whilst, as we have intimated, Mr. Benjamin was a great lawyer in every department of the profession, his powers were best displayed in arguing legal and constitutional questions before the courts, and not in the cross-examination of witnesses and general conduct of cases at miss prin. He, therefore, soon abandoned this part of the practice, and confined his labors to the argument of cases before the House of Lords, the Privy Council, and Court of Appeals. His special forte was in the statement of his case. It is said that on one occasion, when he was opposed to Mr. Reverdy Johnson in the Supreme Court of the U. S., after he had stated his case, one of the judges whispered to another, that the "Jew from Louisiana had stated Mr. Johnson out of court." He was less fortunate, however, on a subsequent occasion in the House of Lords, for when he stated a proposition the Lord Chancellor said, sot to voce, "Nonsense." Whereupon Mr. Benjamin quietly gathered up his papers and left the room. The next day the Lord Chancellor apologized, saying he had done what he ought not to have done. It is said he was not afraid of anything, and would not, for a moment, tolerate any treatment which smacked of an insult, no matter from what source it came. As an evidence of this, on one occasion Mr. Jefferson Davis, on the floor of the Senate, said something which Mr. Benjamin construed as an indignity, and he promptly sent Mr. Davis a note, demanding satisfaction, or an apology. To show the high character and chivalrous bearing of Mr. Davis, as soon as he saw he was wrong, he sent Benjamin word that he would apologize the next day on the floor of the Senate, where the offense was given, and he did so. These men were friends the rest of their lives. On another occasion a Senator from Kentucky sneeringly alluded to him as "that Jew from Louisiana." In his reply, Mr. Benjamin retorted, "The gentleman from Kentucky, forgetting his honorable and exalted position, has stooped so low as to assail me on the point of my religious faith. Sneeringly, he calls me a Jew. Well, sir, I am a Jew. But (shaking his finger at the Senator), when his ancestors were herding swine upon the plains of Scandinavia, mine were following the 'Maccabees to victory."
Many other incidents could be told of this very remarkable man's career, but I have already trespassed too long, and must stop. It will interest you to know that during Mr. Benjamin's stay in Richmond, which, as we have seen, was the whole four years of the war, he resided in house No. 9 West Main street, where Col. Cutshaw resided so long and occupied the same room so long used by our gallant and beloved comrade. During the last days of the Confederacy, he was, for a week, the roommate of that great and good man of God, the late Dr. Moses Drury Hoge. They were warm friends, and I have often heard Dr. Hoge refer to Mr. Benjamin as one of the cleanest and most companionable men he was ever thrown with.
Old Thomas Carlyle, in his "Latter Day Pamphlets," says "Whom doth the King delight to honor? That is the question of questions concerning the King's own honor. Show me the man you honor; I know by that symptom better than by any other, what kind of a man you yourself are. For you show me there what your ideal of manhood is, what kind of man you long inexpressibly to be, and would thank the gods with your whole soul for being if you could."
"Who is to have a statue? means whom shall we consecrate and set apart as one of our sacred men, sacred, that all men may see him; be reminded of him, and, by new examples added to old precepts, be taught what is real worth in man."
And so, my friends and comrades, we gather here from time to time, and place on these walls, in this our Valhalla, the portraits of our leaders, civil and military, in our great struggle for constitutional freedom. These are our representative men, they are our ideals, the men we consecrate and set apart, and we are content that the world shall judge us, and say what kind of people we were and the character of the principles we espoused and fought for, by the conduct and the characters of the men who represented and led us in that struggle. We invite a comparison between them and the representatives of our quondam enemies occupying corresponding positions; we having their portraitures upon the walls of fame, Davis on the one side, Lincoln on the other; Benjamin on the one side, Seward on the other; Seddon on the one side, Stanton on the other; Lee on the one side, Grant on the other; Joe Johnston on the one side, Shermen on the other; Stonewall Jackson on the one side, Sheridan on the other; Stuart on the one side, Kilpatrick on the other, and we proudly say to the world, "Look on this picture and then on that," and judge between us.
On behalf of this Camp, I gratefully accept this portrait, not only as a recognition of the worth and services of the great original; but as an expression of the loyalty and devotion of the noble men and women of the Hebrew race, who have done so much to make our beautiful city the representative city of the South.